Our oldest two sons were born 11 months apart. When we took Gabriel to the hospital with us to bring Jack home, they were together in the back seat – both of them in their little car seats. Their first quality time together. Isn’t that cute. In a matter of seconds Jack was crying and after looking at his brother for a moment Gabe just started shouting at him.
It was their first fight. And that was the last one they ever had, can you believe it?
Any of you with more than one kid in the house know that’s not true.
Where there are two human beings there will be conflict. Am I right?
Conflict is universal. Conflict is inevitable.
We experience friction in the home, at the office and at school.
My family has been witnessing a neighborhood conflict for the last couple of months. My friend Shaun is a pastor at Central Christian church, he lives around the corner from me.
Recently I saw a sign in the lawn across the street from him with a hand written message: Preachers are Parasites.
I sent Shaun a text to see what was going on. You want to know the story behind the sign?
Shaun hosts a bible study at his home on Tuesday nights. Apparently his neighbor took offense to someone parking on his side of the street and stepping onto his lawn.
The next day a sign was posted with this message: “thanks for *@#!ing up my lawn”. That was followed up by the Preachers are Parasites message.
I thought about posting my own sign: Preachers are People too. But the Bible says “Interfering in someone else’s argument is as foolish as yanking a dog’s ears”, so I didn’t. The current sign says Jesus Freaks and has an arrow pointing across the street.
Where you have people you have conflict.
We experience conflict over differences of politics, ethnicity, religion and nationality.
There three types of conflict: normal, necessary and negative.
When you are living in close proximity to another imperfect human, you are going to have conflict. You’ll have disagreements, usually really important ones like should the end of the toilet paper be over or under the roll. You have moments of irritation and impatience and you forgive one another and move on. That’s normal.
When the wellbeing of people you love is threatened, when truth is threatened, sometimes you need to enter a conflict. Paul and Peter had necessary conflict over the question of who gets to be included in church. When your teenager wants to go to school wearing mismatched socks and clashing colors – because you love, them you have to start a conflict.
Negative conflict is unnecessary. It goes beyond the normal skirmishes of day to day life together. Negative conflict flows from a heart that is self-interested. It comes from bitter envy and selfish ambition. We aren’t always willing participants in negative conflict.
A lot of our normal conflict can be resolved with simple steps – a good nap, a granola bar, some basic communication tools.
But some conflict runs deeper. Some conflict branches out and expands into a full scale, long term warfare.
Why does that happen? How do you get past that kind of fight? What do you do when you are caught in a conflict? How do you help friends who can’t get find their way out of a fight?
Let’s read James 4:1-5.
Why are we so prone to conflict? How do we pull out of a relational war we don’t want to be in?
Here’s the answer – when you are caught in conflict, look for the fight behind the fight.
Look at verse 1: what causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?
James uses two similar words: quarrel or polemoi which means literal battle or war and fight or machai which means combat or strife in general.
Some of you have scuffles and some of you have protracted warfare in conflict.
What causes that?
Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?
It is war within that causes war on the outside. In other words, when you see someone in conflict, you know that there is an internal conflict beneath the surface.
External conflict is the byproduct of internal conflict.
What kind of conflict? Who is fighting?
James tells us that it is our passions. What does that mean?
The Greek word James uses is hedone. Do you recognize that word? It’s the root of our word Hedonism. It means pleasure or desires for pleasure.
Desire is a fundamental feature of human existence. Plato wrote that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.”
Hedonism is a philosophy or an approach to life which says that the best life is a happy one, and that happiness comes from pleasure. The best way to live a happy and therefore good life, is to fulfill your desires. Hedonism as a rule gives this one guide to living: does it give you pleasure? Then do it. Do you want it? Then get it.
The general problem with Hedonism is that we aren’t always good at knowing what will make us happy. Some Hedonists recommend the immediate and unrestrained indulgence of every physical desire. Others have found through hard experience that more often than not, a lifestyle of instant gratification produces pain instead of pleasure. (example)
We don’t always know what will make us happy and we don’t always know what we want.
Mark Twain wrote “I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.”
We don’t always know what will make us happy, we don’t always know what we want. And often we experience multiple, competing desires at the same time.
Who wants to be fit, but you also want unlimited tacos? And ice cream? And fresh baked brownies?
A married woman may find happiness in the family she has at home, but at the same time experience intense desire for the man she met at the gym. She experiences an internal conflict. If she acts on her intense desire for a new romance, she can cause an enormous amount of external conflict.
There is an important question we have to ask.
What is the place of desire in the Christian life? Is it desire bad?
The word hedone is always bad in the NT. It’s used 5 times – twice here in James 4, Luke 8:14, Titus 3:3 and 2 Peter 2:13. The desire for pleasure represented by the word hedone is pleasure as an end in itself, it is that gut level pleasure drives out other desires and enslaves.
That kind of desire causes internal conflict and disorder. But desire itself is not condemned in the Scriptures. Jesus himself was driven by desire. He eagerly desired to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. (Luke 22:15) It was the joy or pleasure set before him that drove Jesus to endure the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
We make a serious mistake if we through all desire out with the bathwater of hedone desire. The best summary of the Bible’s teaching on desire comes from John Piper’s book Desiring God. Read this with me:
“Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions: The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”
That may sound very new or strange to you. If that is the case I highly recommend that you read Piper’s book. It may be a lifechanging message that transforms your experience of the Christian life.
What’s the relevance of this to me?
Let’s look at a diagram.
James is telling us that our outer life, our words and works, is an overflow of our inner life, our wants or desires.
When my wants are disordered, when my wants are in conflict, that conflict will overflow into my relationships through my words and works.
When you see words and works of conflict and disorder, you know that there is conflict underneath the surface.
So how do I deal with my wants? One approach is to insert the will between our wants and our behavior.
In others words, if I will apply enough will power, I can conquer my emotions and control my behavior.
This is what many people believe is the message of Christianity. You come to church, learn the rules and then get busy stifling your emotions and applying your will power to change your life.
There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it doesn’t work. Repressed desire does not go away. The more I attempt to impose my will on disordered desire, the more conflict I will experience.
The second problem is that it is not Biblical. The Biblical solution to a disordered heart is a new heart.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.”
The Biblical solution is new desires. The only way to deal with unhealthy desire is to replace with it a stronger and healthier desire. Thomas Chalmers called this the expulsive power of a new affection.
The hedonistic desire for pleasure produces conflict. James elaborates on the warring desires in us in verse 2.
You desire and do not have, so you murder.
You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
Frustrated desire leads to murder and strife.
Murder? Isn’t that extreme?
Last year at a city league football game between my son’s organization and a rival team, two men got into a fight over a woman. One of the men went out to his car to get a gun and came back and killed the other one.
James is a realist. He might remind us that his brother Jesus equated hatred in the heart with murder in the sermon on the mount. If words could kill some of us would be mass murderers. (Matthew 5:21-22.)
The inner root of conflict is frustrated desire.
When you have a conflict: ask, what do I want that is making me so frustrated? Sex? Romance? My love language? Respect?
You have to understand that the person you are fighting with is not the problem. That’s where we look when we have a conflict. The problem is that person over there. No, that’s not right.
The problem is my own heart. The problem is I am looing to people and things in this world to satisfy the longings of my soul.
Only when you realize that nothing in this world – no sexual experience, no romantic moment, no person or relationship can fulfill us will we be able to back away from conflict. Only when your desire becomes centered on something big enough to bring everything into order will you find internal peace.
That’s what Christianity offers. It offers you a new heart and a new object of desire that is big enough to fill your heart.
But what if I have accepted that offer and I still have conflict?
Verses 2 and 3 show us a way forward. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly.
What is the connection?
James is telling us that lack of prayer or dysfunctional prayer reveals and renews inner conflict.
God has given us such a gift in prayer. It’s a resource of unbelievable power. Prayer can drive away anxiety, it can rekindle hope, prayer changes things.
But how many of us use it? I have the privilege as a pastor of helping lots of people overcome tricky challenges in their lives. When someone has a problem I often ask them, “are you praying about that?” It’s amazing how many times we have to say no to that question.
Are you in conflict with your spouse? Is there a family struggle that you can’t find a way out of? Are you praying about that?
But prayer is so hard! You don’t know how busy I am! I’ve tried to pray and I just can’t figure it out!
Here are 5 prayer starters that could revolutionize your prayer life:
God thank you for . . .
God I feel . . .
God I am burdened by . . .
God I pray for my friend . . .
God I am sorry for . . .
Maybe you are praying, but you are praying wrongly. Many people approach prayer like a cosmic vending machine. We come to God, we drop in our religious tokens and we expect everything we want to instantly drop from heaven. That kind of prayer is going to help you.
I see 7 ways we can pray wrongly in the Scriptures:
- Not praying (James 4:2)
- Praying with the wrong motives (James 4:3)
- Praying but not believing (James 1:5-8)
- Praying but not persisting (Luke 18:1)
- Holding on to sin (Psalm 66:18)
- Holding on to a grudge (Mt. 5:23-24)
- Mistreating your wife (1 Peter 3:7)
Let’s finish with a real life example of prayer in the midst of conflict. In 2 Samuel 16:5-12 we see a moment of incredible strain in the life of King David. His son Absalom has led a coup and taken over the throne. David has lost his job, his home, his son and is about to lose his life. Several of his best friends have gone over to his son’s side. As he flees the city an old enemy named Shimei comes out to meet him. Shimei begins to throw stones and shout curses at David. You piece of trash! You deserve this!
Can you imagine? David’s friends turn to him, “let’s cut his head off”. Can you relate?
Isn’t David’s response incredible? Leave him be. He might be here because God sent him.
Maybe I deserve this. Maybe God will reward me for shutting my mouth and taking this.
David resisted an irresistible invitation to conflict.
How in the world did he do that?
We have a window into David’s inner life in that moment in Psalm 3 and Psalm 63. The headings of those Psalms tell us that they were written as David fled from Absalom. In those Psalms we see the inner world of a man who rose above conflict through prayer.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown